Financial Independence Flash Point

There were tears in my eyes. And I was begging my mom. “Let’s just leave. The baby, my little brother and you. We can just go. We will figure it out. I can get a job. I’ll help pay the rent. I think the little rooms above the grocery store rent for only $150 a month.” I was 12, and I thought it was a good plan. The man my mom had married years before had changed. Now he drank every day; all night long. The only words he could mutter to us were insults and slurs. Mostly he worked in the garage at night. It was like there was a rain cloud over our home. And I was done.

poverty to financial independence

My mom was more logical than I was passionate. “I’m sorry.” She told me. “We can’t afford to leave. This is just the way it is. With three little kids and a minimum wage job, there is no way we will make it.”

I cried hot tears into my bed that night. That was my FI flashpoint.

12, hurt, scared and angry.

I learned an important lesson about the world.

Money equals choice. Money means freedom.

If I could earn more than I spent, I could buy myself a different life.

And that is just what I set out to do.

Living in poverty feels like all your choices are made for you. The place you work, the hours you work, the food you eat, where you live, who you have to live with, and how you spend your free time. Poverty decides all of it. You feel like a cog in the wheel. Just pushing through the motions. No exit plan. Just keep your head down and keep walking. Don’t make waves. Don’t complain.

There is little hope of our situation getting better, so we just try not to make things worse. We can’t afford for things to go worse. Ends barely meet as it is.

You have to just accept it. Because you are a victim. Of systems and circumstances. All too big to overcome and outside your power to change. Or you can call bullshit and fight it. Inch by inch you take ground.

By my senior year, I was living on my own. Paying my bills. Working full time. And had squirreled away $8,000. I might have been driving an old pieced together geo metro and wearing goodwill clothes, but $8,000 was half a years wages for our family. Just sitting in my savings account. Freedom money.

My life plan won’t be defined by scarcity.

But it also won’t be stolen away by upgrades or excuses.

Have you ever met that girl who will smile a sweet smile, and nod a little nod? She quietly walks away. Then begins the escape plan. Scheming, planning, dreaming and hustling. She is ready to flip tables and take no prisoners. She is biding her time, but just wait. Like a rocket being built in the basement. She is tired of being the tail and never the head. Tired of being trapped, stuck and held back.

Try to get her to sleep in late. Try to get her to trade her freedom for new clothes. Try to convince her to compromise all her escape plans for little comforts. She doesn’t give a damn about the bread and circus’. 

It’s fine if you want to buy the high end granite counter tops. She will be happy for you. She will profess their beauty. Then she will buy the cheapest laminate counters for her own home. Because she has a different plan. That extra money has a different purpose. It’s freedom money. It will be put into a rental house. Or squirreled away in an Roth IRA. She is buying the right to custom choose her life.

Try to stop her.

Make fun of that beater car. Go ahead. Complain to the boss how her ugly car should be parked in the back, where customers can’t see it. She will smile her sweet smile. And nod her little nod. Then she will buy yet another rental property. One step closer. She won’t even point out how that $30k car loan cost you another year of work at this job you hate. No. There is no time to waste her breath.

There is the most important. Then there is everything else.

We don’t trade the most important for everything else. Simple as that.

Our most important: Time for our marriage and kids. Travel and adventure. Living with generosity. Rest and work. And freedom. The freedom to create the life that is the best possible fit for us that year. To have what we need, when we need it. Our bills are paid, food is in the cupboard and the house is warm.

I know what our most important things are. And they always get to come first.

Everything else… is just everything else. Why the hell would I care about having the newest iphone? Or how much data it has? Will I trade my most important for that? So I can have overpriced tech and bragging rights? Please.

It took years, decades really, to learn to be ok with looking poor in order to build wealth. I sometimes still have to fight against that flood of feelings: inadequacy, less than, shame. I could trade away our money and options to appease those feelings. We could take the $50,000 sitting in our checking account and upgrade our 16 year old Honda Civic. The more financial freedom we build, the easier it becomes to resist. Having that choice, made it easier to say “No. That’s never been our most important.” Now when asked about that old, beater Honda, I say with pride, “Oh, that old car? That car has helped make us rich. I could never let her go. She’s a dream maker.”


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60 thoughts on “Financial Independence Flash Point

  1. Very moving post. I’m sorry you had to go through those traumatic experiences as a child, and I appreciate your sharing them. I couldn’t agree more with your closing words: “The more financial freedom we built, the easier it became to resist.” I’ve felt the exact same way: the closer I’ve gotten to my financial goals, the less self-conscious I’ve become about my choices. Maybe it’s the security of knowing that I can always “trade up,” but I think it also comes from the satisfaction of watching those decisions compound into something much more valuable.

    • Yeah, I think it’s both. When we were first married and Mr. Mt was in the military, all the soliders he worked with went out to eat for lunch 2-3x a week. He never did, unless it was a farewell party. We thought that if we kept on this path, and saved, and payed off all the debt, and started investing it would pay off. I would look at savings charts and say, “See, see, if we just keep doing this for 10 more years, here is where we will be!” But it was still harder, because there was no guarantee. Plus everyone else thought it was crazy. “Small choices don’t compound.” “You can never get ahead on a modest salary.” Living in the “after” is easier because we can easily do those things if we want to, plus we now know we were right about the whole compounding thing. =)

  2. So powerful, Ms. Montana. There is nothing like growing up with stress about money to crystallize what is really important in life as an adult. My parents stressed and fought about money my whole life. And my dad got laid off too soon for retirement benefits. It was always such a terrible black cloud. The irony is that, now, my parents are rolling in money in their retirement thanks to pensions, my dad being a savvy investor and not being big spenders. Very illuminating.

    • I think seeing that stress over money gives extra motivation to create a life where there is less stress about money. We didn’t start out with FI plans or early retirement plans. We just wanted to not have to live hand to mouth our whole life. Waiting till payday to buy groceries, even though you ran out of milk and bread 3 days ago.

  3. Amazing post, Ms. Montana! It’s unfortunate you had to experience the circumstances you did as a child – I love how you came out fighting for the most important. Knowing your most important and then living your life accordingly is the secret to success and happiness.

    • I think both my little brother and myself had the same idea, “Well, this isn’t so much fun, maybe we will try something different.” Our mom was also amazingly supportive, which was a huge help. She always encouraged us to aim high. That alone was a big factor in our success. He also found his “most important” and is crazy successful in that area. =)

  4. That’s intense. Thanks for sharing. It’s great that you were able to overcome poverty. A lot of people never escape from that cycle. We were poor for many years when we immigrated to the US. It was tough when my parents didn’t know how to the next month rent. That made saving a big priority for me. Financial freedom beats nice stuff any day of the week.

    • I think it changes your perspective. I’ve seen people struggle to make ends meet, month after month, but won’t give up their new car with it’s car payment. After growing up poor, I just have no desire to play that game. If an item or hobby is going to compromise my financial security, it’s not worth it.

  5. Thx for sharing your harsh story of childhood. It seems to have given you the right motivation to be free early.

    I am with you: the more freedom you have, the easier it gets to say no to the rest. The longer we are on the journey, the more clear it gets to us what really matters, and everything else, well, that is just that.

    • I went back and forth on hitting publish. I told my email community I would. Then I told them I might chicken out. But at the end of the day, I think our stories matter. If we can tell them with vulnerability and simple honesty, it gives a window into another persons life. And even when our stories seem worlds apart, they connect people. Because there is always common threads: “If you know what you want, and what is important to you, you can accomplish more than you think, and surely more than others will say you are capable of.” Stories are cool in the way they resonate differently for each person, and different lessons or encouragements unfold. It’s always less painful to “tell” instead of “show” but doesn’t connect the same way.

  6. This is one of the most powerful FI posts I have read. From my perspective this post could serve as the basis for a book showing the way for other women. Well done!

    • I’m a person to whom words are very meaningful. I save notes and cards, emails. I think I will write this one done so I can hang it up on the inside of a cupboard where I keep those important words. So thank you so much for that!

  7. First let me say I’m sorry you went through that, but sadly for various reasons I can 100 percent relate. Ultimately my experiences as a kid define how I run my life today, I remind myself without those experiences I would probably not be financially secure now. It’s a small consolation, but at least it gives the options to ensure my kids never have the same experience.

    • While there were a few really shitty things, there were a bunch of amazing ones too. Sometimes life is just like that. With everything I try to ask, “What does this make possible?” And for me, even the bad things made a lot of good things possible. I think you are absolutely right, that those experiences can shape us and set us on a much better path. It gave me lessons that would have been hard to come by any other way. And it really sparked my love of adoption. Which helped create the beautiful family we have today.

      And I love that our kids will have no clue of that struggle. Sometimes my bio son will start whining that “there’s no food in the house.” Oh, please. There’s 15 boxes of cereal right here. =)

  8. I want to reach into the past and give 12 year old you a big hug. And I bet 12 year old you would like to stretch forward and give now you a huge high five.

    I grew up in a third world country and we were poor. No trauma though, our family was happy. It is only after I grew up that I looked back and realized how little we had. And to me this is priceless. Growing up the way I did ingrained in me the belief that I don’t need things to make me happy and that has stood me in very good stead as I pursue FIRE.

    • Ha, my 12 year mind would have been blown to see the kind of life we have!

      But I think you made a great point: the belief that I don’t need things to make me happy

      Very few of my best memories and experiences involved money. All the amazing parts of growing up hinged on other things. An amazing relationship with my great grandparents. Good teachers. Sports. Friends. Picnicking in the woods. And you are right, I rarely associate spending more money with being happier. Plus a lot of things that Mr. Mt saw as deprivation due to his middle class upbringing, I saw as excess luxury. Like eating out once a month. That was barebones to him. Where I can only remember eating out at a sit down restaurant 3 times with my parents growing up. Fast food was a huge treat. And it still feels that way. Shoot, I’m just thrilled to fill up my gas tank all the way like a crazy careless person, instead of carefully penny by penny putting in $5 at a time. =)

  9. Wow, truly an honest and inspiring post! So sorry you had to go through this, but it sounds like you’ve taken this and grown tremendously because of it. Congrats to you on that!

    My father died when I was young and my mom raised my brother and I by herself for a good decade after that. We weren’t poor, but she did struggle a lot of times to make ends meet over the years. It really changes how you think about money and the freedom that it can provide.

    Thanks for putting yourself out there like that – hopefully, that will inspire others out there.

    — Jim

    • Thanks so much Jim. =) So sorry to hear about losing your father. That is a big burden to carry on top of the financial struggle. I’m glad it helped put you on the Route to Retire. And you are so right, when you see the freedom and choice that money can offer, I think it makes it less tempting to trade it away for things that aren’t as important to us.

  10. Girl, you are speaking my language! Lived with a broke mom who was raising 4 kids after my dad left. (SNAP – back when you had to hold up the line and tear out the coupons so everyone knew, letting the littles eat so at least they would be full, giving 2/3 of my min wage earnings to mom to make rent, etc.) I promised myself I would never be that broke again, ever. Now I get teased for driving a 10 yr old mini-van and cooking from scratch, but we have no debt, substantial investments and savings, will pay the house off in 5 years (23 years “early”) and we will be able to stop working no later than 55 (after kids are out of college, just to be safe). Yes, they were hard years, and hard lessons, but taught me so much about how I didn’t want my life to turn out. My siblings still tease me…they call me the most grown-up grown-up they know and say I can turn $10 into $11. The secret smile… I see you! 🙂

    • I promised myself I would never be that broke again, ever. Hummm, preach. While we figure all this out in my 20’s, I often had to pick between “looking rich” or “feeling rich” aka lots of margin in the budget and cash in the bank. Feeling rich every time. Because I can handle looking poor, but boy does it suck to feel poor. My sweet little kids have never had a clue what day “payday” was on. Because it’s never mattered. To me that is feeling rich. Not anxiously waiting for the paychecks to be signed. So we can rush to pay the bills before things get shut off and put some food back in the cupboards.

      I’m so glad you have been able to take those lessons and put them to good use creating some financial freedom!

  11. What a huge flash point. I’m so sorry it had to be from such traumatic roots, but you’ve done amazingly well in so many ways, not just material ways, that will have a lasting positive impact on the people you reach. That, and a life well lived, are some of the best definitions of success, aren’t they?

    I didn’t experience abuse as a child, but at age 6, I learned what it was like to have to flee your home for safety. My parents had fled their war-torn country so that we wouldn’t grow up under corrupt Communists, but that didn’t sear itself into my brain the way this did: A cousin showed up on our doorstep one day, small child in tow, and stayed overnight with us before moving on again. Mom had a very serious talk with us that day. Our cousin was fleeing her abusive husband and I could never ever mention having seen her, or knowing anything about her, because he would kill her if he ever figured out where she was.

    I don’t know for sure but I suspect that played a role in laying down part of my hoard/save money foundation. We were the helpers in this situation but I learned that having my own money could go a long way to help me avoid being trapped like that some day. She escaped because family helped her escape, not because she had money of her own. If they couldn’t help fund it, she wouldn’t have made it.

    Luckily (?) I grew up poor, early on, and never assumed that my parents’ temporary wealth from running their own business was permanent so I didn’t feel self conscious about looking poor when I was poor, or when I was building wealth. Today the only reason we have “nice” cars is because we got the best deal for a used car, paid for in full with cash, and we’ll get years and years of use out of them. We have to find a new home and we’re not looking for the best looking building, we’re looking for something with great bones that we can make home. (I’m going to need serious DIY help one of these days!)

    • That is such a terrifying story about your cousin. I agree there is something about seeing money = choice/options/freedom in such a real and important way is very formative. Good luck on your house hunt! Let me know if you need any DIY tips. =)

  12. Wow, I am so glad you went ahead and hit publish on this one, Ms MT. I had a very different childhood, one which I’m so grateful for, but I so appreciate your transparency sharing the hard way you learned this lessons as a kid.

    My flashpoint came just out of college, when I watched my very comfortably-upper-middle-class parents go through a lot of financial struggle. My dad lost his job in 2006 and they’ve floundered ever since, taking YEARS to figure out to have to adjust your lifestyle when you make less money. They’ve partially cashed out retirement, lost a business, and made the same decisions over and over not understanding why their results aren’t changing like they want them to. It has been so frustrating to witness.

    So most of my financial decisions are as a result of watching my parents still so financially insecure at 60. I want to be in a MUCH different place so I am making very different decisions.

    • Thanks for sharing that! Honestly, in some ways, I think it is easier to start poor and save the difference as your income grows. Rather than have things very comfortable and be forced to scale back. When the economy tanked we had a few family members lose jobs and were forced to cut back. It’s always hard when it’s not a choice you wanted to make but was rather forced on you by circumstance. I’m so glad it gave you motivation to have more control over your financial future. It’s much nicer to be frugal by choice. Plus it’s SO much easier to set things up for security rather than try to make up lost ground.

  13. Sounds like you have the resilience muscle 10-fold! Not that I would wish an abusive situation on anyone, but it seems like people have it almost too easy these days, so when the slightest things comes up that makes them uncomfortable, they don’t know what to do, so they spend, or medicate, or quit something even though they have no other plan or had not planned or saved for it. Most people don’t take adversity and use it to build them up.

    • I wrote about doing the unnecessarily difficult things a few weeks ago, because I think it’s so important to flex that grit muscle every now and then. The situation at home growing up was challenging but not crushing. And I think that is key. Mr. Mt and I have worked with kids from horrific situations, and that amount of brokenness is so difficult to repair. Those years weren’t ideal. But I was lucky to have a great school, teachers, coaches and part time jobs. Plus my mom is awesome. Sometimes all you need is one person in your corner. =) It’s a big reason we have always volunteered with teens. Often they just need one or two people to show up.

  14. Wow! Thank you for sharing this. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Money does mean freedom. I decided a long time ago that I would be the one to finally break the destructive cycle my family kept repeating throughout their history.

    • Good for you Val! It can be hard to break free of those patterns and mindsets. I was lucky to have an amazing mom. She eventually got herself to a much better space as well. Now we can both look back and say “Well that was crazy! Never doing that again.”

  15. Very well said. I can relate totally, but unlike you, it took us awhile to catch on, but we did. My husband and I both were the punch line in many jokes about our frugality amongst our peers. Now we are debt free, with a house and a small piece of land paid for, and money in the bank. Now in my fifties, I truly appreciate not sacrificing this financial security for the latest and greatest gadgets/cars/clothes, etc. My daughter has a saying that comes from cattle country here in Canada. It describes people who have misplaced priorities……”Big hat, no cattle”.

    • That is a great spot to be in by your 50’s! I’ve worked with people in their 50’s flat broke and taking out a brand new 30 year mortgage. And they are totally panicked. I bet having that financial security feel amazing. I would rather hustle early then stress at the end. And I love cattle country! I grew up in north central Montana. Those old farmers and ranchers are among my favorite folks. =)

  16. Your description of what poverty feels like is simply amazing. I firmly believe that few stresses are as extreme as financial stress. I feel fortunate that I’ve never had to feel it during my adult life.

  17. This is a fantastic post! Money truly does buy freedom. Everything else is just everything else. When I go to get togethers with friends, it turns into everyone talking about their stuff. The newest car they bought, the new TV, the bigger house they’re moving into, etc. But they’re only happy with it until they see someone else bought something bigger or better. I just roll my eyes internally at them. They’ve fallen into the trap of living a life of accumulating things that don’t matter and don’t bring happiness. I’m happy with my small house, 11 year old car and investment accounts that have me on the short track to financial independence.

    • Thanks so much! It’s great when we find the things that are important too us and can stop chasing the things that aren’t. Hopefully your friends will see your happiness and find things more fulfilling to them. Sometimes it takes a while to find all the things that don’t work for us first. =)

  18. Ms. Montana you brought the literal FIRE today. This is by far the best piece I have ever seen you write. I re-read it three times and each time I could feel your despair and what motivated you. I am blown away. Great job!!!

    • Thanks so much! =) I love stories, but it’s tricky to take these huge ideas and experiences and find the right 800-1200 words to explain it. I’m counting my whole first year of writing my “practice year.” Maybe year 2 as well. If other people get 4-6 years of college to figure this writing thing out, I should get at least 2 years. =)

    • It probably added to my growing up quick, in the sense of being very responsible and intentional. I had a really good idea of what I wanted and where I wanted to go. And knew what would and what wouldn’t help me get there.

  19. What a powerful post, Ms. MT! I’m so sorry to hear what you’ve gone through. 🙁 Obviously, I have never had to deal with anything close to this. It makes me so happy that you used the experience as motivation to improve your life and and those around you. I feel like stories such as yours just point out how frivolous spending can be super silly in the big scheme compared to what’s really important.

  20. Thank you for this post. I just stumbled into your blog, I am not even sure from where or how but I am happy I did. I love your honest approach and the fact that you don’t care about your old phone and your old Honda. If we could all have just a bit more of that attitude, we would not be such a debt-ridden continent, always wanting the next best something. 🙂

    • Hey Stephenie, I’m glad you stumbled here as well. Must have been fate. =) I think people are constantly consuming and upgrading because they are searching for things that will be meaningful but all too often come up short. Knowing what our “most important” is clarifies that. I thinks it’s the clarity of vision that eliminates the noise of random consumerism. Thanks for being new here! =)

  21. “Like a rocket being built in the basement” – Wow, powerful post. I’m still sitting here in awe. One of the best pieces of writing I’ve read in a long, long time. Powerful. I’m proud of you, MMM!

  22. Lady, you never cease to amaze! I am in awe of your tenacity. Your children have an amazing set of parents to look up to and build upon this momentum you have thrust your family into. Wealth is one thing, but your stronghold on family and the real meaning of happiness goes beyond what most will ever dream of. Keep on keepin on…even if it’s in a 16 year old Honda! Mine is the same age and I consider her part of the family. 🙂 I so look forward to meeting you in real life!!

    • I feel you on the Honda love! We have talked about getting rid of her a few times. But it feels like talking about selling off an old dog because they aren’t great hiking partners any more. =( And YES! to hanging out! Want to come visit in Montana? Or maybe FinCon? =) The lest we could do is set up a Skype call. Shoot me an email!

  23. What an awesome piece of writing! Thanks for sharing these experiences and your insight.

    It took me a long time to understand what my father was doing, because “what he was doing” was simply part of the prevailing culture in the 1950s and early 1960s. Few women — VERY few — could get into a job that would support one person and even one child, to say nothing of several children.

    My mother did have office skills. She could get a job. And I remember the time she came home, after being offered a job near our home, absolutely CROWING with joy: “It’s such good pay for a woman!!”

    “Such good pay for a woman” would not have paid the rent on our apartment. It wouldn’t have touched food and medical care and parking and glasses and gasoline and utilities…

    My father would control her psychologically by threatening to leave us. Whenever she did something he didn’t like — which usually entailed spending too much of “his” money on something like clothing or makeup — he would tell her that if she didn’t quit it he was going to leave.

    He kept her in a state of silent desperation with this tactic. Fortunately, he went to sea, so she didn’t have to put up with him personally for very many long stretches. But eventually he did retire, and then she had to face this kind of bullying all the time.

    Because that was just “life” for me — in those days no woman could expect to earn enough to live on — it took many years for me to realize financial independence = freedom. And “financial independence” doesn’t have to mean being wealthy and out of debt: all it needs to mean is earning enough to keep a roof over your head and food on your table.

  24. I’m so touched by this essay! Where did you learn to write like this? Powerful! I guess it’s true when the English teacher says the most important thing in writing is the thought, everything else is just everything else – to borrow one of your phrases 🙂 Please consider writing a book, if you have not planned to do so. Your perspectives are so refreshing! Many thanks and best wishes!

    • Thank you so much. =) I store up all the kind things like this that people say. It spurs me on to keep writing. Even the hard things. I think there is something about the simple honesty and vulnerability that resonates with people, even when our stories are very different.

  25. I just discovered your blog. In “reading backwards” to catch up, I found this post. I can honestly say that no financial literature I have read over the last 35 years (and I have read hundreds/thousands) has affected me the way that did. The raw honesty and the mature advice of the content is powerful and should be required reading for anyone seeking FI.

    My wife and I seriously began our FI journey in 1981. (We had nothing and had just lost our home). We are now semi-retired and “living the dream” as i like to say. We are not wealthy, just comfortable.

    We also saved, cut back, and bought rental property. (We worked very hard-It’s not fun spending weekends painting a fixer-upper while your friends are at the lake, but it all pays off eventually.)

    Well done. Keep up the good work.